Alabama Crimson Tide defensive tackle Quinnen Williams

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2019 NFL Draft DT analysis (part 1)

March 22, 2019 - 2:22 pm
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THE NFL DRAFT REPORT PRESENTS

THE 2019 DEFENSIVE TACKLE/NOSE GUARD DRAFT CLASS

Thanks to the success the Rams have had with Aaron Donald and whatever "wing man" they import to join him each year, the defensive tackle position is gaining recognition as a vital important cog for NFL teams hoping to have the ability to shut down an opponent's rushing game.

CHARTING THE NFL TEAM NEEDS

Currently, eleven NFL teams use the 3-4 defensive alignment, exclusively, with fourteen other organizations remaining in the classic 4-3 defensive mode. Both Buffalo and Indianapolis experimented with the 3-4 base defense last year, with Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, New England and New Orleans using multiple nickel fronts with amoeba concepts. Dallas and Minnesota are 4-3 fronts, but they both utilize the Tampa-2 scheme.

Prior to the start of veteran free agency, nine teams listed defensive tackle as a primary need entering veteran free agency. Five others listed it as a position that they needed to address for depth issues. Five of these teams opted to re-sign their own to help alleviate position issues in training camp, as Jonathan Hankins returns to Oakland, Margus Hunt remains in Indianapolis, Jordan Phillips stays in Buffalo, Brandon Mebane will again play for the Chargers and Daniel McCullers will serve coming off the bench once more for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Getting Mebane back, the Chargers cleared the way by cutting Corey Luiget, who played in just four games last year due to a torn quadriceps.

The Cleveland Browns seemed to have found their defensive tackle answer by inking Sheldon Richardson to a three-year deal and Philadelphia jumped right in to secure the services of Malik Jackson with a five-year offer after he was purged during Jacksonville's quest to get the money needed to sign Nick Foles. Bringing in Jackson resulted in the Eagles dumping last year's high-priced signee, Tim Jernigan, who missed thirteen games with a back issue.

Atlanta is looking for a running mate to team with Grady Jarrett, but the Falcons were forced to put the franchise tag on their star defender and this could turn into an ugly matter if they do not sign him to a long-term deal before camp opens. The Saints locked into Malcom Brown early, as their stud defensive tackle, Sheldon Rankins, could miss the first half of the season recovering from Achilles tendon surgery.

Minnesota feels they found a sleeper when they signed Shamar Stephens, but for any other team requiring a defensive tackle upgrade, the draft may be their better option. Someone might be interested in Ndamukang Suh and he might return to the Rams on a one-year deal, but nowhere near the fourteen million price tag he demanded last year.

Coaching changes in Green Bay has former Jets first rounder Muhammed Wilkerson still seeking employment. That leaves teams scraping the bottom of the barrel, if they decide to go the veteran route, with names like Darius Philon, Cassius Marsh, Christian Covington (just signed by Dallas) and Danny Shelton not making any general manager make reservations to wine and dine any of them.

PLAYING BY THE NUMBERS

The defense’s level-one interior blockers have different assignments, based on the alignment they play in. As for most, it comes down to a game of “numbers.” In both the 3-4 and 4-3 alignments, these defenders are usually associated with the gaps they are assigned to penetrate. Nose guards usually line up over the center’s head and are assigned zero-gap duties. Those lining up over the outside shoulder of the center take one-technique responsibilities. Playing over the inside shoulder of the offensive guard leads to two-tech assignments while the outside shoulder of the guard is for three-tech chores.

Numeral technique assignments were first mapped out by Hall of Fame head coach Bear Bryant. In his system, these numbers refer to a spot where the center of the defensive lineman's body ends up. Four-tech responsibilities are assigned to those lining up over the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle, while five-tech chores are over the tackle’s outside shoulder. Playing over the tight end’s head leads to six-tech while the tight end’s inside shoulder (seven-tech) and outside shoulder (nine-tech) are also associated assignments. While a bit confusing, one easy way to remember is that the inside shoulder of a blockers is assigned even numbers and the outside shoulder odd numbers.

In the 3-4 defensive alignment, the nose guard and the two defensive ends are assigned two gaps that they are responsible for vs. the running game. The ends handle five-tech duties and are usually bigger, more physical than the rush ends usually associated with a 4-3 defensive scheme. They have to be dominant in stuffing the run and need to be very active getting their hands on the offensive lineman. They have to have the power to stand up or drive that blocker back into the pocket and quick enough with their hands to shed and make the tackle.

The nose guard is normally a massive, squat player with above average strength. He needs to anchor and stall the inside running game. You prefer your nose guard to remain stationed at the line, yet, have the lateral agility to easily move from side to side. While he does not need to be quick, he needs to be instinctive, as the rest of the level-one defenders will usually react to the nose guard’s initial move.

In the 4-3 defensive formation, the two tackles have different roles. One will be assigned one-tech duties while the other operates from a three-tech mode on either side of the center. These interior defenders are generally given just one-gap assignments. The one-tech will operate similar to the nose guard, where he might be stationed more at the line of scrimmage. The three-tech is then given the task of penetrating the line and pushing the pocket in order to impact the passing game.

Both tackles need to be quick off the snap and while not as massive as the nose guard in a 3-4 scheme, teams prefer that they are in the 300-pound range. They have to have the natural power to clog the rush lanes in isolated situations. The one-tech will be tasked with stacking and shedding at the line of scrimmage while the three-tech has to shoot the gaps and disrupt the backfield. He must also have the balance and burst to handle stunts and loop around to get to the ball behind the line.

THE DEFENSIVE TACKLE DRAFT HISTORY

Since the 1970 draft, the NFL has selected 1,262 defensive tackles, but just 385 of those interior defenders have been selected since the 2000 draft. Within the 1970-to-present group, 118 of these players heard their names called in the first round, including 56 since the 2000 draft phase. Since the 2000 draft, teams have chose four defensive tackles in each of the 2001, ’02, ’10 and ’13 drafts, while the 2003 and 2011 sessions produced five selections each year. In the last three years, there have been seven first round choices, eight second round picks, sixteen third round selections, ten more in round four, eight in round five, nine in the sixth round and eight in the seven round utilized at the defensive tackle spots.

Since the 1970 draft, there have been a few “gaps” when it comes to taking interior defenders in the opening round. From the 1980-through-1982 drafts, no defensive tackles were selected in the first round. Steve McMichael of Texas was the 79th pick (third round) by New England in 1980, but he went on to acclaim as a member of the Chicago Bears. “Gentle Ben” Rudolph was the first defensive tackle taken in 1981, but he waited until the Jets grabbed him with the 60th choice (third round). David Galloway of Florida was the first tackle taken in 1981, becoming a St. Louis Cardinal with the 38th selection (second round).

In 1989, no defensive tackle would join an NFL team as a first round pick. The first interior lineman chosen that year was Dennis Byrd, but the Tulsa star, selected by the Jets in round two (42nd overall saw his career cut short by an injury in 1992. A total of thirteen defensive tackles were drafted that year, but the only other pick before round five was third round choice, Auburn’s Tracy Rocker, by Washington with the 66th choice.

In 1998, the NFL again bypassed defensive tackles during the first round action. Among the twelve that were drafted that year, only one heard his name called before the fourth round. However, Lean Bender of Washington State, the 31st pick (round two) by Oakland, never made it on to the football field. On May 30th, 1998, five weeks after the draft, Bender died before gaining the opportunity to play an NFL game. He was found dead in the home of Terry Bolar in Marietta, Georgia. Bender was visiting Bolar, an associate of Eugene Parker, Bender's agent. The Cobb County medical examiner's office confirmed on June 10th, that a seizure disorder was the cause of death.

The NFL Hall of Fame does not feature many at the defensive tackle position. Since the two leagues merged for a universal draft, only five defensive tackles eligible from 1969 to date have made it to Canton, and one – Minnesota’s John Randle – started his college playing career at Trinity Valley Community College, before transferring to Texas A&M University–Kingsville.

Randle would go on to star at defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings and the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League. On February 6th, 2010 he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He went undrafted and later tried out for his brother's (linebacker Ervin Randle) team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but was thought to be too small, and was not signed to a contract. The 6'1" 287-lbs. defensive lineman was picked up by the Vikings after the draft on the recommendation by scout Don Deisch, playing his first season in 1990. He went to his first Pro Bowl in 1993 after recording 11.5 sacks, and was quickly becoming one of the dominant defensive tackles of his era.

The other four are well-known and have one distinctive trait – all were first round selections. The first was “Mean” Joe Greene, a North Texas standout who joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as the fourth choice in the 1969 draft. Randy White joined the Dallas Cowboys as their fourth overall selection out of Maryland in 1975. Miami produced the next pair – sending Cortez Kennedy to Seattle with the third choice in 1990. He made 58.0 sacks from 1990-2000. The Tampa Bay Bucs later named Warren Sapp the 12th pick in 1995 and the volatile performer tacked on 96.5 sacks in 198 games.

Since the 2000 draft, 12 of the defensive tackles drafted have registered at least thirty sacks.

Five have topped the forty-sack count, with Kevin Williams (ninth overall pick by Minnesota in 2003) pacing that group with 63.0. The sack artist at nose guard since 2000 is Cincinnati’s (fourth round in 2010) Geno Atkins, who checks in with 71.0. Others over forty sacks are current “top dog,” Ndamukong Suh, as the former Detroit (second pick in 2010) and Rams star has gotten to the quarterbacks 56.0 times. Randy Starks (third round by Tennessee in 2004) has 42.0 sacks and Darnell Dockett (64th choice in 2004 by Arizona) finished his career in 2014 with 40.5.

THOUGHTS ON THE 2019 NFL DRAFT DEFENSIVE TACKLE/NOSE GUARD CLASS

Based on our final ratings sheet, at least 22 interior defensive linemen are expected to be drafted, with five considered to be strong first round candidates. While many teams consider Alabama's Quinnen Williams to be the top player coming out of this draft class, Arizona is expected to opt for Kyler Murray with the first choice. That leaves San Francisco, which invested heavily with three first round choices and a trade for Dee Ford, considering whether to take the best player on their board (Williams) or the best pass rusher (Nick Bosa) with the second selection.

That sets up both the Jets and Raiders to see if Williams slides to them at pick number three or four. Both teams might set a record getting their card into the commissioner's hands if Williams is there for the asking. Before the 2018 season, Williams was not even considered to be an elite player on his own team, as the coaches were hyping others during fall camp. Yet, after consensus All-American honors to go with the Outland Trophy, teams now see a player with an exceptional burst and strong hands. He has that strong anchor to clog the gaps and his inside-outside footwork rivals that of John Randle's, making him the "gotta have" guy at this position.

As for the "next man up" at defensive tackle, Houston's Ed Oliver keeps getting those Aaron Donald comparisons. While I can use three certain letters that will have the censors jumping in here (w-t-f), I will just use my best Brooklyn verbiage and say forgetaboutit. Oliver came into the 2018 season as the position's pedigree, but average play early in the year, followed by an injury, a sideline blowup with his head coach and then the decision to "concentrate" on getting ready for the Combine saw him wave good-bye to teammates before the bowl season.

On any other day, Mississippi State's Jeffrey Simmons would be a certain top-ten selection, but off-field issues first saw him banned from the Combine. When the NFL relented, he still could not participate, as he suffered knee ligament damage while working out to prepare for his one shot in front of scouts during his school's pro day. Watch the Raiders, with two late first round picks, to be the team most likely to roll the dice. If he recovers, they could have an All-Pro talent in the middle of their front wall by 2020.

The most intriguing prospect here is nose guard dominator Dexter Lawrence. The Clemson Tiger missed post-season action due to a supplement he took and hurt himself an Indianapolis, but for any team looking for a one-gap occupier (New England or Atlanta calling?), this just might be the best player on board without the Williams surname. Powerful, massive, quick and smart, while three other Clemson defensive linemen might be called in round one, they all owe a percentage of their contracts to Lawrence, as he simply made those around him look better.

One of those who benefited from playing alongside Lawrence was Christian Wilkins. What this youngster brings to the table is great stunting ability. Wherever he lines up in level one, he usually always finds a path to the ball. His style of play is similar to new Green Bay signee, Za'Darius Smith, as both have the ability to spin into the backfield from the edge or rip through the gaps working inside to get to the passer.

Jerry Tillery offers a team a Stephon Tuitt type of performer, more five-tech than a one- or three-type, but the Notre Dame's engine does run hot and cold. He's been shut down with a minor injury leading up to the draft and will likely go in the second round, but if there is a big run on linemen before him, a team like the Patriots might consider him with pick #32.

Two highly touted players prior to the season have seen their shine dim a bit. Ohio State's Dre'Mont Jones lacks sand in his pants and showed at the Combine that he labors some getting into gear. While some teams still consider him early Day 2 material, his top-heavy, weak legs type of frame saw him stood up often at the line of scrimmage. His stiff hips prevent him from playing at a low pad level and while he has active hands, he's not going to shock and awe too many offensive linemen with his hands punch.

Zach Allen of Boston College is another player that has seen his stock impacted. In 2017, he was one of two defensive tackles since 1990 to register at least 100 tackles. In 2018, he had more missed tackles than one can tabulate without a calculator. More of a five-tech type, his slow get-off from his stance affected his play this year, thus having more teams looking at the collegiate end as an interior draft prospect.

Texas' Charles Omenihu has been bunched with the defensive ends, but while he has that classic position physique, the light inside is a little dim. No, it is not that he is not smart, it is just that the game has yet to slow down for him. He might be a better fit inside at tackle, but his refusal to lift at the Combine might be a telling sign what all see on film - an inability to anchor or play the game instinctively. It's better to absorb him inside than to have him get out-thinked on the edge.

Now, there are two tremendous athletes who teams might do back-flips for, or simply have them demonstrate their back-flipping skills - Western Illinois' Khalen Saunders and Wisconsin's Olive Sagapolu. Saunders would be a nice fit for a 4-3 alignment that utilizes the nose tackle. He has a vicious hand slap and is much faster on the field than even his 5.01 speed indicates. He has great balance, evident by a valid spin move, but his fireplug frame and T-Rex like arms (32-inch arm length, 78-inch reach) could pose a problem if he does not fire off the blocks consistently.

Sagapolu is a mountain of a man who can rival Dexter Lawrence in density (352 pounds) and was having a banner senior campaign until blowing out his shoulder eight weeks into the 2018 season. With no Combine invite or Pro Day, the one-gap plug might have to go the free agent route. If he makes it to the NFL, he will find his relatives, the Peko Brothers, welcoming him.

Early Day 3 types to watch out for is one of my favorites - Central Florida's Trysten Hill, a physical hand fighter who just excels splitting the A-gap. Arkansas' Armon Hill, Kingsley Keke-Texas A&M, Gerald Willis-Miami and Isaiah Buggs-Alabama are all mid level types that are expected to provide roster depth.

 

NFL draft analysis provided exclusively to 92-9 The Game courtesy of The NFL Draft Report...

 

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